By Raffaella Sero
On the cover of “Jane Austen the Secret Radical”, a series of grey silhouette portraits of men and women succeed each other, all wearing clothes from the Regency Era, all facing the same direction – except for one, the red silhouette of a woman, sometimes identified with Jane Austen. According to the database of the National Portrait Gallery, this portrait, inscribed “l’aimable Jane”, is most likely to represent the author, mainly on the ground that it was found in an early copy of Mansfield Park. The uncertainty surrounding this identification is as significant as the immemorial wish (verging on obsession) to find a more satisfying representation of Jane Austen than the portrait made by her sister Cassandra. Similarly, for two centuries readers and aficionados of Austen have been striving to learn more about the author’s life and personality than her surviving letters could possibly yield. This pertinacious scrutiny, however, far from giving us further insight into the real Jane Austen, may have led us astray, making us focus on a romantic, whitewashed version of Austen than never truly existed; so believes Dr Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen the Secret Radical.
The story of Dr Kelly’s first encounter with Austen is representative of this trend. “I really like to think,” Kelly tells me, “that I had read Pride and Prejudice before I watched the 1995 television adaptation, but I’m not completely sure that I had. I was a fan before I was a student of Austen; I suppose that does make a little bit of a difference”. Austen’s stories certainly find their way to other media much more frequently and with considerably more success than those of most other authors, so that coming to the books through their adaptations, like Kelly did, has become the most typical approach to them. But can we still enjoy the films, I wonder, without losing anything of Austen? Without indeed losing Austen herself? The answer lays in caution. “I find it that with Pride and Prejudice I always have to go and check whether I am remembering something from the text or from the fact that I have watched the adaptation over and over again. I don’t know that it is only the adaptations – it seems interesting to me that very high level critics can still make factual errors and misspell names in Austen.” Thus, in her Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Marianne Butler consistently misspells Anne Elliot’s name, and Edward Saïd can talk about Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia running off with Mansfield Park’s Henry Crawford. “Clearly, they haven’t been checking the text, they haven’t been looking at the text … they’re not reading the text or they’re not seeing what’s there because they have a pre-made idea of what there is there to find. They physically can’t read the text. The idea with the book is to try and see if we can get some of that out of the way, by looking at the text in a more analytical way. It is really hard to do, and partly because of the adaptations but not just because of the adaptations. This kind of misreading has been going on for a very, very long time. People have a sort of default idea of what they are going to find, and sometimes they don’t seem able to see what’s actually there because their preconceptions are so strong.”
Just like the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice, then, we must try and see beyond our preconceptions, to strain our eyes and look beyond what we think we know, all the way to the real Jane Austen. A new approach is needed – or perhaps a very old one. It is no coincidence that as an undergraduate Kelly read Classics and English at Oxford. “You need to read classical texts in context,” she tells me. “It’s an alien culture. You cannot read the text as it was meant to be read if you’re not aware of at least some of the context. With most classic novels people are not willing to do the extra mental work to try and put themselves in the right social and psychological and religious context for it. Much as I love updating such as ‘Bridget Jones’ and ‘Clueless’ – they’re cool, they’re fun and the plot transfers very well and a lot of the fundamental ideas transfer across quite well – there is always stuff you can’t move with you, which you would get from a more vigorous understanding of where the author is coming from, which hasn’t been popular in English for a little while. Historically grounded reading should make a comeback.”
Speaking of Classics, one cannot help but wonder (when one happens to be a classicist) what was Austen’s relationship with the subject. Did she find any models of female behaviour in the Classical world that were still relevant to the Regency period? “There is the question of how much Classical history Austen would have been aware of,” Kelly muses. Austen’s father, a classicist himself, probably taught her some Latin, but it is hard to go any further than that in assessing her classical education. What we know for certain is that Austen was very conscious of “the in-depth ways in which women could interact with history”, as it emerges from the flamboyant, exaggerated, brilliant portraits of female characters in her ‘History of England by a Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant Historian’. “Her history of Henry VIII is almost all about Anne Boleyn. She shovels as many women in there as she possibly physically can, within the confines of a more or less ‘normal’ history of England. Both in the late 18th century and in ancient history she could see the indirect ways in which women can exert power.” This is something you can well imagine Austen’s heroines doing. “Absolutely. Emma and Knightley. He has some kind of obligations and pressures that are acting on him and on his behaviour, but one of the reasons perhaps that he marries Emma is because he is aware that there needs to be some kind of counter-pressure – someone who will make sure that [poor] people have soup, that will go and make sure these people have food; and from this perspective she is much more active than nearly all of the other heroines. She is very aware of the obligations that she has on poor people. There is something in Emma’s practicality; we assist to a meeting of minds. Despite the concerns I have about Knightly and Emma, this is a marriage that will work.” Notwithstanding this meetings of mind, however, Mr Knightley’s constant criticism of his beloved may feel to the modern reader as plain old mansplaining. “He’s not as much of a mansplainer as Henry Tinley,” Kelly protests. “He is terribly unwilling to have Catherine or his sister have their own opinions, to use their own words. He’s terribly in control and I think Knightley isn’t really, not in the same way. He’s older than Emma, he’s always been her senior – it would have been weird if he didn’t mansplain a little. But he is very tolerant of her, and it does feel that he needs that kind of element of conflict and testing of whether his own decisions are the right decisions.”
One truth the reader of Jane Austen The Secret Radical cannot escape, however, is that the relationship between Mr Knightley and Emma is not the focus of the novel. Indeed, Kelly believes that none of Austen’s celebrated romances, with the possible exception of that between Darcy and Elizabeth, are the most important element of the relative stories. This is to be looked for elsewhere: in the social issues in which the plots are deeply rooted. In the case of Emma, social movement may be one of these issues. “Emma is full of people who are uncertain about how they relate to each other, and the novel is much more conscious about that issue than other Austen novels are. How much of a problem her mysterious birth is depends on who Harriet’s father is. If he’s a lord then everything is going to be fine. It allows for her potential social movement. All three characters in the novel who are not brought up by their parents have that kind of slipperiness which is originated by no one actually knowing where they belong and still less sure where everyone else belongs.” This confusion leads to misunderstandings and to different characters trying to bend the social structure one way or another all through the novel. What does Austen think about these attempts? “Austen is very analytical about the society that she lives in. You can see the underlaying structure of it and the underlaying oddities of it. Writers in this period are trying to analyse what is going on and what that means for everybody, and whether you can change it into something that will work better. Austen doesn’t have Burke’s nostalgia for the past. He wants things to be like they have aways been; she realises there have been quite violent changes in her own lifetime, and that they are not going to stop.” Like Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, Austen understands that the past, if maybe glorious, is not retrievable.
Embracing change may be at the bottom of more than Austen’s last finished novel. As Dr Kelly notes in her chapter on Pride and Prejudice, “Darcy, who represents both the politically powerful nobility and the landed gentry, has to embrace change.” How are we to reconcile this progressive message with Austen’s general representation of the lower classes (or lack thereof)? Some years ago Jo Baker, the author of Longbourn (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the Bennets’ maids) pointed out that in Austen’s novel there is almost no awareness of the servants, who are hardly ever mentioned. They are invisible, even though they must be there. “While that is true for Austen earlier works,” Kelly admits, “as she goes on writing they get more and more stage time. They get more time on the page, they get more personality. If she had carried on writing, perhaps we would have seen her merging more into, say, Dickens’ interest in other social classes outside her own experience. She definitely seems to be moving towards that.” Even in Austen’s extant works, people outside her main characters’ daily experiences do come into the story. This is true particularly of Emma, where one of the protagonist’s main tasks is to visit the poor people around Highbury. In the same novel, we witness a much more sympathetic description of gypsies than is to be found in other contemporary literature. Austen, Kelly concludes, was on a course that would have made her much more inclusive and socially aware in her writings.
Austen herself experienced relative poverty to a degree which is not easily perceivable from the lavish house (belonging to her brother Edward) with which we are confronted everyday on the ten pound notes. “Despite Austen’s family pretending in later years that they were solidly middle-class, they weren’t solidly anything. The fact that Edward, one of Austen’s brothers, was adopted and ended up owning a large estate, gives a skewed sense of the family’s financial position. It distracts the modern reader from the real position they were in, which was not a very bright one.” The story of Edward Austen Knight, chosen by rich relatives as their heir and thus somewhat alienated from the rest of his family, cannot help but bring to mind the similar fate reserved for Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, and for Emma’s Henry Churchill. From what we have of Austen’s correspondence, some clear resentment is perceivable in her early relationship with her brother. “As they spent more time together, however, they seem to have developed a much closer relationship. Austen reflects more on his side of the bargain. This explains the sympathetic portrayal of Henry Churchill, notwithstanding the flaws inherent to his character.”
More radical still than Austen’s treatment of poverty is Austen’s treatment of slavery, particularly as presented in the character of Manfield Park’s Sir Thomas Bertram. How do we reconcile his mostly positive influence in Fanny’s life with his “business in Antigua”? “As with Mr Knightley’s agricultural schemes, which effectively impoverish a large proportion of the population while attempting to solve pressing demographic issues, we have to believe Sir Thomas is trying to do his best of a difficult situation.” The bitter truth was that twenty years after the abolition of slave trade in England, the slave plantations were still there, the sugar was still coming in, the wealth of Britain was largely based on slavery, and no amount of social anxiousness was enough to cancel that simple truth. As Dr Kelly illustrates in Austen The Secret Radical, Sir Thomas is facing the same sort of moral questions that the Church of England was facing at the time: once one owned slaves, what was the morally correct, and socially plausible, thing to do? There are no straightforward answers to what Sir Thomas is doing in Antigua (in fact, it is not impossible that he is checking on the conditions of his slaves); what does clearly emerge from Dr Kelly’s careful and perceptive study of its background, however, is that Mansfield Park was deeply engaged with the most pressing social and moral issues of its time, as are all of Austen’s novels. Once the reader gains any awareness of this background, the author’s voice cannot but reach them strong and clear through the pages and the centuries: slavery – like poverty, like prejudice, like the physical exploitation and cultural segregation of women – “is there, is happening, and you are morally tainted by it.”
Austen does not allow us to put any of these issues aside, but she leaves it to her readers to decide what to do with them. It remains with the reader to decide what kind of men Sir Thomas, Mr Knightley, Colonel Brandon are. Similarly, Dr Kelly’s eye-opening book gives the reader all the relevant details, all the tools to truly and finally understand the real Jane Austen, yet it leaves us with the choice of what to do with this knowledge. Above all, it leaves us with one question: was Austen trying to make revolutionaries out of us? “She wanted to make people more aware and analytical of the world they lived in. She wanted people to think about what they were doing and the reasons behind their actions. Her work is always about being the best individual you can be, but also about your relationship with the world. Rather than rebels, then, Austen wants to turn us into radicals; she does not wish her readers to tear the world apart, but she constantly urges us to look deeper into it.”
Jane Austen’s major novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion
Jane Austen and the War of Ideas – Marilyn Butler (2006)
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen – ed. Susannah Carson (2011)
Jane Austen, the Secret Radical – Helena Kelly (2016)
Jane Austens’s Letters – ed. Deidre Le Faye (2011)